The Fight to Save the Cache River Swamps

Brookport, Illinois

The Cache River wetlands in extreme Southern Illinois are amazing to see – even after having large areas drained a century ago. This was done by reversing the flow of Post creek that once went into the Cache, enriching it and helping keep it wet. Instead, Post Creek became a disastrously eroded drainage ditch that drained the swamps into the Ohio River. Even after being badly exploited by the timber industry in the early 1900s, and after being devastated by row crop and livestock farming along it in the past several decades, what’s left is a strikingly beautiful and unique environment.

In this wetland, particularly in the National Natural Landmark “Buttonland Swamp,” are some of the oldest trees in the U.S. This wetland, which is located in the “lower Cache,” escaped the drainage district and the loggers and contains cypress trees that are up to a 1,000 years old, and have hundreds of “knees,” some of which are taller than a person. Even the National Geographic, in a 1992 story several years ago, referred to the Cache wetlands as “internationally significant.” It now is primarily owned by either Illinois, (The Illinois Dept. Of Natural Resources) the federal government, (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) or the Nature Conservancy, although there are still key private inholdings. These three agencies refer to themselves as “The Partnership.” The decades long process of recognizing the significance of the swamp, and taking steps to both protect and acquire the swamp has been touted as one of great environmental successes in the nation.

But looks can be deceiving. In spite of the all of the publicity about the area in the last decade, the ecosystem is in trouble. The wetlands and river are filling up with silt and becoming highly vegetated, because there’s still too much disturbance and pollution in the watershed. Too many consecutive years of unnaturally high water levels, artificially sustained by what was supposed to be a “temporary” impoundment on private property (but supported by the partnership) has killed most of the natural hardwood component of the swamp, leaving it a brush and duckweed filled, almost entirely cypress/tupelo wetland forest, devoid of the natural wetland hardwoods that once lived in the shallow ridges in the swamp. The small strip of swamp that still survives is having a hard time surrounded by agriculture, highways, and residential development.

Nevertheless, it is a wonderous thing to behold in a canoe or even standing on the shore. In fact, it is so remarkable, thinks the Illinois Dept. Of Natural Resources, that they can build some kind of tourist attraction out of the Cache wetlands. In fact, they believe it so strongly that they have invested millions of dollars in a visitor’s center and museum (The “Henry Barkhausen Wetlands Center”) which was built on the edge of the wetlands just outside of Karnak, Illinois, a rural community off the beaten path in far Southeastern Illinois. This visitor’s center is the centerpiece of this story, or at least the impetus for it. It is a story of personal and agency jealousy and retribution, injustice and stupidity. It is a story of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Corzines

A.E. Corzine is passionate and knowledgeable about the Buttonland Swamp. Probably more than anyone else alive. It isn’t surprising when you realize that his backyard is literally the swamp, and that it has been for most of his life. He is a true man of the swamp. He seems equally at home in his boat, walking across some cypress knees, wading around, or any other number of things that you might have do in a swamp. He also seems at home paging through his files of documents and photos, which he and the Citizen’s Committee have collected for decades, (the most complete files on the Cache, he says). He’s ready, willing and able to do whatever it takes to protect this swamp that he grew up with. I don’t know exactly how old A.E is, but he’s somewhere in his 70s? You would never guess it. He is energetic, and in very good shape. Usually if you go to his house, he’s working. If not on his land, then on the Cache issue.

A.E.’s wife, Janis, is every bit as passionate and knowledgeable about the Cache issues. She is A.E’s ears and top advisor. They both love the swamp and if not for them, it is likely that “The Partnership” probably wouldn’t exist, and almost all of the Cache wetlands would have been drained and tiled for corn and soybeans. In fact, A.E.’s role in this is discussed in the National Geographic story. Everyone around here knows that A.E. and Janis had more to do with protecting the last of the Cache wetlands than anyone.

They are the main people that did it. Not the only ones, but the main ones. They started speaking up about the swamp long before any agencies were involved, and it was only after their relentless advocacy that they were able to get the attention of the agencies about the significance of this wetland. It’s no secret.

Protecting What’s Left

As A.E. tells it, a particular large agricultural developer from the Bootheel of Missouri, who had experience in converting wetlands into farmland, had started acquiring land along and into what was left of the Cache wetlands, in the 1960 – 70s. The land would be logged and drained (or at least drainage was attempted), with the goal of farming it. It’s not easy to farm a swamp. It takes a heavy hand.

This happened on hundreds of acres. This was in addition to the hundreds of acres of land that had already been cleared and was being farmed along the river. But these new acquisitions went deep into the few percent of the Cache Wetlands that were still left. The local Drainage District was all for this. To them the swamp was a pesky nuisance and their job was to get rid of it. Taking on a Drainage District was not something easily done, especially in a place like Southern Illinois. Who wants a swamp when you can have a farm field?

The way I understand it, impacts on the Buttonland Swamp from this new drainage effort combined with some very drought summers in the late 1970s caused the swamp and almost the entire river to nearly dry up. This alarmed some local residents, including the Corzine’s, who have a great series of photos of the dried up swamp. Somewhere about this time, the Corzine’s and a few other local allies of the Corzine’s hooked up with some high profile governmental and environmental officials to form a local organization called “Citizen’s Committee to Save the Cache,” with the goal of trying to save what was left of the entire Cache River wetlands system, including the Buttonland Swamp, which was one of the gems of the system.

One of the high-profile governmental officials was Henry Barkhausen, former Director of the Illinois Dept. Of Natural Resources, who joined the Citizen’s Committee in 1982. From what I have heard, the Corzines had solicited Barkhausen’s participation in the Citizen’s Committee in an effort to get the state interested in protecting the swamp. To have a former Director of the Dept. Of Natural Resources as a member gave the Citizen’s Committee statewide credibility and clout. This was necessary to move the agenda of the organization, which was to try and get as much of the Cache Wetlands into some kind of public ownership as soon as possible. The price for having such a high profile and politically connected board was that it was insisted by some on the board, and agreed to by the Citizen’s Committee, that they would never publicly criticize any of the agency’s involved for any reason. With that promise in place, the Citizen’s Committee became one of the partnership, having it’s name and logo appearing alongside all the agencies whenever there was something public about the Cache Wetlands protection projects. With a board of the high profile folks in combination with the Corzines and the Nature Conservancy, the Citizen’s Committee grew in importance and stature.

This high-powered partnership was needed, especially because The Citizen’s Committee applied to the U.S. Corps of Engineers for a permit to build a dam across the Cache river to hold back water in the Buttonland swamp. This was portrayed as an emergency, stop-gap measure to make sure the swamp didn’t dry up, but it was a very bold move for the time and place. The permit was granted, and the dam was built on the land of a close associate and friend of the Corzine’s, Dave Diehl. The dam became known as the “Diehl dam,” and it did raise the water level in the swamp. However, the Drainage District was breathing down the back of The Partnership, trying to get the dam removed.

Fortunately for the movement to protect the Cache, awareness about wetland preservation was peaking in our country. Way too many swamps had been drained in the past – almost all of them in fact. This made it “hip” for a state agency, especially from a highly developed state like Illinois, to be involved in this fight. The Illinois agency could again be at the national forefront of natural area protection, after being the first state in the U.S. to undertake a Natural Areas Inventory. The Nature Conservancy added money and prestige. History and legacies were being made. In fact, the connections were so close between the Citizen’s Committee and Illinois, that when it became apparent that there was going to have to be litigation in state court to keep the Drainage District from taking down the dam, the Citizen’s Committee leased the Diehl dam to the State of Illinois for something like one dollar so that Illinois could become a party in the case, and the State Attorney General could argue it. The state was a much more formidable foe to the Drainage District in state court than either the Citizen’s Committee or the Nature Conservancy would have been.

The litigation ended up in a settlement, and the Diehl dam stayed. Each party, including the Citizen’s Committee, was assigned certain responsibilities. One of those responsibilities was that the Citizen’s Committee would keep the water level at the dam at a certain “magic number.” (328.4 feet above sea level, to be exact.)

Interestingly enough, this was an arbitrary number that was picked out of the air by the Citizen’s Committee, with the knowledge that this level was a little higher than the average mean water level in the swamp, but would insure that the swamp would not dry out until more land could be acquired and the bigger environmental problems addressed that might restore some of the natural cycles back to the system. With water in the system, a high profile court case favorably settled, and lots of great publicity, the state started to acquire land in earnest. Following that, The Partnership successfully pushed for the establishment of the Cypress Creek national wildlife refuge, which started acquiring land lower in the watershed from where the state was acquiring. By the early 1990s, tens of thousands of acres were bought by public land agencies.

Things looked promising for the future of the Cache. The Corzine’s and the Citizen’s Committee, their promise to never criticize the Partnership in hand, many key goals having been reached, rested on their laurels and victories, the result of over two decades of work.

Problems Return

As A.E. says now, “they went to sleep” for 10 years, trusting The Partnership. A couple things started to wake them up. One was the decision by the state to spend millions of dollars on the visitor’s center. From the Corzine’s point of view, not that a visitor’s center wasn’t a good idea, it was just that there was still a lot of restoration work needed to be done for which funds weren’t available. They thought these should be finished before investing in a visitor’s center. This wasn’t that controversial however, and even when the state decided to name it after Barkhausen, which wasn’t really fair but which is typically bureaucratic, The Citizen’s Committee went along.

But according to folks I have talked to, there was a growing problem with hunters and illegal Off Road Vehicle riders on the national wildlife refuge impacting local residents. The Corzine’s wrote up a questionnaire and sent it around the neighborhood asking for neighborhood input on some of these questions. I’ve seen the records from the survey, and a substantial majority of those that filled them out that said they had problems with the public land management in the area, especially in regard to hunters and ORV users. Corzine’s brought this to the Citizen’s Committee, and ran into the brick wall of the agreement not to publicly criticize The Partnership. So A.E. brought a proposal to the board to do away with the “promise” not to publicly criticize the partnership, so that the Citizen’s Committee could go public with their concerns about the Fish and Wildlife Service’s management. It passed.

Barkhausen didn’t like this. This was the beginning of the end of his association with the Citizen’s Committee. This began the unravelling of the established Citizen’s Committee Board.

Nevertheless, the Corzines managed to win votes of the board and retained control of the Citizen’s Committee even as many of the long time members quit and publicly criticized Corzine and the Citizen’s Committee.

The Corzines didn’t give up, though. The Cache was their back yard, and they couldn’t quit. As he told me, once he woke up from his decade of sleep, he started looking around at what kind of management The Partnership had been doing for the last 10 years, and he didn’t like some of what he saw. What troubled him more than anything was the mass die-off of the hardwood trees, such as wetland oaks species, that occurred on some of the very shallow or even dry ridges in the swamp. A.E. started documenting this, and was trying to get The Partnership to address it. They refused. They said that the death of the trees was from high water events on the Ohio and Mississippi, particularly the great flood of 1993 on the Mississippi. Personally, I am doubtful of that explanation as being the sole reason for the die-off, because this swamp had been experiencing these severe floods on a fairly frequent basis forever, and those trees were still there. This was a mass die-off that had to be caused by more than one or two floods. I think the Corzines were right that the sustained, unnatural high water levels in Buttonland swamp from the Citizen’s Committee’s dam was a primary cause. A.E. wanted back in court to lower the water level’s “magic number,” but The Partnership wasn’t listening. They wanted 328.4, period.

A.E would say, “if they want more water, they need to go down, not up,” referring to the need to dredge the silt laden, historically deeper waters in the Cache’s old, meandering channel. He was worried about the still viable strip of hardwoods which still lined the swamp but which were starting to show signs of stress from the sustained high water.

Right around that same time frame, a main levee which helped to protect thousands of acres of farmland from flood waters backing up from the Ohio up Post Creek failed. The hydrology, ecology, and politics of all of this are way too complex to write up in a general story, but this became an issue, also. The levee itself was under the authority of the Drainage District (yes the same one), and Illinois and The Partnership refused to get involved in any kind of repair until the Drainage District gave up authority over the levee to Illinois. (It still isn’t repaired) The Corzines ironically now urged the Drainage District not to give up authority so as to keep some local leverage over Illinois. Most of this energy was aimed toward trying to get The Partnership to implement the deep water restoration dredging operation. The Partnership said they wanted to do it but didn’t have the money.

As all this was occurring, A.E. wrote a series of columns in some local newspapers, taking The Partnership to task for their failure to address these problems. Needless to say, that didn’t go over too good with The Partnership. Afterall, everyone around here knows that the Corzines are primarily responsible for the Cache getting “protected” in the first place, and Southern Illinoisans aren’t inclined to be very trusting of government agencies anyway. The Partnership worried, rightly so, that complete loss of support from the neighborhood (which was much more likely without the support of the Corzines) could dash away their hopes of future restoration activities, which could require more land acquisition, and even cooperation from neighboring land owners, to implement. This all was like a bad nightmare for the Partnership, which up to this point, primarily because of the “no public criticism” agreement with the Citizen’s Committee, had never had to deal with much public criticism, at least from the environmental side. (Not like the Forest Service, which was constantly blasted by all sides.)

But instead of carefully considering the concerns of the Corzines and what was left of the Citizen’s Committee, The Partnership tried a very badly orchestrated “Plan B.” Plan B was to try to either ignore or discredit the Corzines in the public forum. I, myself experienced this on more than one occasion, having been told that A.E. was losing it, had done unscrupulous things to keep control of the Citizen’s Committee, and other various personal attacks. I knew something was going on, but I wasn’t involved enough to know the details. By the time all this was happening, I had been acquainted with A.E. for many years, but didn’t know him that well and hadn’t been intimately involved in Cache issues, although I did keep up with them and loved and used the area. I, like most Southern Illinoisans, admired A.E. and thought he was an environmental hero for our area. I had kept up with the articles in the local papers, and had some conversations with him about particular issues on the Cache. (such as the fact that the IDN was allowing cattle grazing on state land near the swamp) I always had found him to be straightforward, honest, and the most knowledgeable person I knew when it came to the Cache River system. Also, I had never met anyone who was more dedicated to saving that swamp

Then came the real kicker. About 3 years ago, in the midst of this controversy, the Citizen’s Committee decided to take a bold step of what can only be called civil disobedience, and they lowered the dam about 2 feet on their own, without telling anyone, violating the court settlement, outraging The Partnership, and leaving only inches of water in most of the swamp. This is when the campaign to destroy the Corzines credibility began in earnest. I just couldn’t figure out what was going on, so I decided to try and find out.

Retaliation Against the Corzines Begins

Now the whispering campaign against the Corzines went into high gear. I was hearing all kinds of terrible things about him. I wanted to hear his side of the story. I called up A.E. and we talked and he invited me over. I also visited with or talked to numerous other people who were involved in the Cache issue. This is how I learned all of what I am writing. I also was invited to attend several meetings and field trips with either A.E, The Partnership, or other interested parties. So now we get down to the real meat of this issue.

At one of the meetings I had with a person who had been involved in the Cache River issue for years, I was given an, at the time, recently written, lengthy, poison-pen memo about A.E., written by no other than Mr. Barkhausen himself, which apparently had been distributed to key people in The Partnership’s circle. I guess I was given the memo because the person that gave it to me thought that it would persuade me to join them in condemning the Corzines.

Instead, I found the memo to be unethical, disgusting, and unbelievable. I had never met Barkhausen, but he had always seemed to maintain a positive public image through his work on the Cache. I was shocked at this memo. For example, Barkhausen, who now was retired to Northern Illinois and rarely came to the Cache, accused A.E. of being jealous of Barkhausen because of the visitor’s center being named after him instead of A.E. This is about as low as a personal attack can get, and it is unbecoming of someone in Barkhausen’s position. This was but one of many harsh, personal attacks on A.E. The memo, circulated to innumerable people, was meant to crush the Corzines’ credibility and shut them up. What history will show is that, in fact, it was Barkhausen’s credibility and reputation that has been forever damaged by this memo, and naming the center after him will not change this history.

Of course, it turned out that this was all being done behind A.E.’s back, and he had no idea that this memo was circulating. He was given no chance to defend himself against these serious charges.

However, bad news travels fast, and as will usually happen in such a situation, the memo finally did make his way to the Corzines. A.E. sat down and wrote a written response to it point by point, and widely circulated his response. It appeared that The Partnership and the Citizen’s Committee were headed toward a total meltdown in relationship. The Partnership wasn’t getting anything done while the silt buildup and the hardwood die-off in the swamp continued.

Other local environmental groups tried to intervene. A request was made to have a public forum with the Partnership and the Corzines participating so that these issues could be aired publicly. Corzines agreed, but The Partnership refused. And while The Partnership was condemning the lowering of the dam, they took no legal action to force the Citizen’s Committee to raise it back to the height in the agreement, probably for fear that a court hearing would show how the state was not keeping up its end of the agreement either.

Once on a field trip, I asked The Partnership representatives giving the tour, (who were bitching about the lowering of the dam), while we stood on the Perks bridge over the Cache at the edge of the Buttonland swamp, “why, if what the Citizen’s Committee did was so horrible and was threatening the whole ecosystem, they didn’t take whatever action was necessary to force the dam to be restored to the legal height? Didn’t they have an obligation as protectors of the resource?” They shrugged and said that they were afraid how a lawsuit against the Corzines would look to the neighborhood. This is a perfect example of how The Partnership was both paralyzed and hypocritical. It was tough times on the Cache.

But, as the old saying goes, time does have a way to heal wounds. The Corzines continued their advocacy. The Partnership went on. The public criticism of each other lowered, and as the last few years have passed, there has been increased contact between the Citizen’s Committee and The Partnership. Some of this was even initiated by the Partnership, who needs A.E.’s knowledge and support to try and get restoration work back on track. The relationship improved somewhat. The Citizen’s Committee put the dam back up to the “magic number” of 328.4, to help facilitate the dredging operation, which still hasn’t been started. The Corzines also had been supporting The Partnership in trying to get control over the blown out levee from the Drainage District.

Unfortunately, in return for this, The Partnership has now just stabbed the Corzines in the back in a very demeaning, degrading, insulting, and unnecessary way. Again, this threatens the future of getting needed work done on the Cache. We get back to the visitor’s center. After sitting there, finished but unstaffed for years, Illinois finally released funds to staff the center and open it to the public. So, this coming Friday, April 29, 2005, The Partnership is sponsoring a big grand opening/ribbon cutting. Guess who isn’t invited and isn’t even mentioned in the literature? You guessed it – the Corzine’s and the Citizen’s Committee. Instead, the IDN is inviting groups to participate in the dedication ceremony that have not historically been on the front line of the Cache preservation issue, and certainly have not been nearly as involved and haven’t contributed to the existence of this center nearly to the extent of the Corzines and the Citizen’s Committee. There is no doubt that leaving out the Corzines and Citizen’s Committee is a purposeful snub and rebuke of the Corzine’s contribution.

This unjustified and unfortunate snub has opened up old wounds. Recently A.E. sent a letter to the current director of the Illinois Dept. Of Natural Resources, Joel Brunsvold, pointing out that while Barkhausen was Director of IDN, “both the State of Illinois and the Federal Government financially contributed to the…Drainage District…(which) …assisted in destroying (parts of the Cache)…much of which has been lost never to be reclaimed.” I won’t go into what else is in the letter, but no doubt it signifies a major step backward in the relationship between the Corzines, The Citizen’s Committee, and The Partnership.

I’ll be personally disappointed if the participating environmental organizations don’t do something to recognize the Corzine’s work, or even to not participate unless the whole story is told. The Corzines deserve to have a place of honor in this. This visitor’s center would more than likely never have been built if it wasn’t for their work and dedication. It was their courage, as Southern Illinois locals, to take on a very “wise-use” neighborhood at a time when it wasn’t hip or well known to protect wetlands. I’m very disgusted by the Illinois Dept. Of Natural Resources, who is rewarding vengeful pettiness and punishing real accomplishment and contribution – a lifetime’s worth.

To me, the so-called “Barkhausen Wetland’s Center” is a symbol of the worst in the Illinois government, and I’ll never respect it, and never believe that Barkhausen deserves the honor. In fact, in my mind, it will always be the Corzine Center for Dedication to Wetland Protection, and anyone who asks me, that’s what I’ll tell them.

MARK DONHAM lives in Brookport, Illinois. He can be reached at: